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Ethics: Where are you? part 7

June 26, 2010

Plato’s story of Gyges and the magic ring that gives the power of invisibility to its wearer is used to describe ethical egoism by showing that given the opportunity to wear the ring and do as one pleases, the wearer will act unjustly if it means that the injustice brings happiness to the wearer. Glaucon states that, “If a just man and an unjust man both wore the same ring … their actions would be no different” (Boss, 2008, p. 237).

I think that ethical egoism as a philosophy of living would result in its followers not having free will since, according to Glaucon, both the just and unjust would commit injustices in their own self-interest. However, people would consider “the interests of others if it is in our self-interest to do so” (p. 238).

Ethical egoism is different from solipsism in that followers of egoism believe that they alone may act in ways that benefit themselves while everyone else must follow social norms. Although it seems similar to ethical egoism, the difference is that the solipsist does not believe that morals exist other than their own.

Ethical egoism is different than hedonism in that ethical egoism refers to rational pleasures while hedonism is about sensual pleasures and immediate gratification.

Hobbes’s theory of human nature as deduced from his writing in the Leviathan is that humans are self-centered and only do good deeds out of fear of punishment or harm and “only because we delight in demonstrating our powers and superiority” (p. 243).

Hobbes’s theory of human nature has shaped our view of ethical egoism in answering moral dilemmas such as abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and such other hard to ponder situations. For example, if death row felons believe that the death penalty will erase their crimes and they want to be executed, according to the ethical egoism theory, people act in their own self-interests and the death penalty is right for those who want it.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was considered an American novelist, screenwriter, and philosopher by Boss, although Rand was born in Russia and migrated to the U.S. In 1931 when she was 26 (p. 247).

Rand’s theory of objectivist ethics as found in The Fountainhead is portrayed through the character of Howard Roark who “lives his life entirely for himself. He asks nothing of other people and feels no obligation to help others” (p. 249). The relationship of Rand’s objectivist ethics to ethical egoism is that Rand believed that people would be happier if we “pursued our own self-interest instead of trying to help others” (p. 252) while ethical egoists would help others if the results benefited the egoists.

Boss connects laissez-faire capitalism and colonization with ethical egoism by stating that when people act in their own self-interests they want good results for themselves, and at the same time, if good things are occurring then other people/society may benefit (p. 253).

Educator Jonathan Kozol believes that inequalities exist in the education system as it now stands. This could be used as a criticism of ethical egoism by showing that if each school works towards its own benefits and not the school system in general then schools situated in upscale neighborhoods with higher tax bases will be better off than more rural schools.

Theorist Frantz Fanon criticized ethical egoism because he believed that when people focus on themselves and compete against each other, those who do not have goods to trade on the economic market … remain at a perpetual disadvantage” which allows those in power to oppress the lower classes (p. 257). Individual competitiveness keeps the oppressed from coming together “to overthrow their oppressors” (p. 257).

Marxist theory criticizes ethical egoism’s capitalism which “benefits only a few at the expense of the many” (p. 254). A small percent of Americans control a big percent of the country’s wealth.

An ethical egoist like Rand would respond by saying that trying to lessen the wealth differences between the upper and lower classes by giving handouts to the lower classes is degrading to the lower classes. Rand believed getting ahead was up to the individual.

The logical contradiction that philosopher James Rachels sees in ethical egoism is that it defines moral community in such a way that there are only two groups: “myself and the others” (p. 261). Philosopher Hazel Barnes criticizes ethical egoism as a failed moral theory because humans are social beings but ethical egoism is a divisive theory in which everyone looks out for their own self-interests rather than the good of the community. Egoism “deprives us of vast areas of human experience and growth” (p. 262).

The overall critiques of ethical egoism include that striving for our own rational self-interest is not the only method that can be used to create one’s own happiness and that happiness may actually be the result of “helping others, having relationships, or achieving wisdom” (p. 266). Since ethical egoism is based on the individual’s moral truths, egoism is not a universal truth and there are no “guidelines for resolving conflicts of interest between people (p. 266).

Ethical egoism is similar to social Darwinism in that everyone looks out for their own self-interests, the powerful oppress the weak. Ethical egoism does not view the individual’s place in society and the give and take aspect of relationships.

I do not think that Boss is too harsh on ethical egoism because Boss details that the theory allows for the individual to consider helping others when that help will somehow benefit the individual. That is probably the best argument for ethical egoism. The idea that self-interest in a laissez-faire capitalist society sounds good on paper, but is not realistic in practical application because humans are individuals who do not have the same assets as each other.

Ethical egoism is a normative theory that states that morality is acting in our best self-interest. Thomas Hobbes’s theory of psychological egoism is a descriptive theory of how things are. In Leviathan, Hobbes wrote that people are only interested in themselves and that they only form societies to preserve themselves.

Ayn Rand’s version of ethical egoism is known as objectivist ethics in which people work for their own goals. Rand’s character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead is an example of how people can focus on their own lives and not be indebted to anyone for anything.

Ethical egoism and laissez-faire capitalism states that everyone has the same assets and so each are able to support themselves without relying on anyone else. Capitalists create jobs, consumers spend money as they wish, and each benefits the other.

Ethical egoism creates two groups which include the individual and the remaining members are people from whom the individual can benefit. Happiness research shows a negative correlation to claims made by ethical egoists. Happiness is related to “social values such as love, sympathy, friendship, forgiveness, tolerance, group participation, and volunteerism” (p. 264). One of the criticisms of ethical egoism is that morality can be based on groups of people and not just the individual.

“The Age of Apology” from globalethics.org

The article is about the value of an apology. Author Rushworth M. Kidder cites examples of well-known people who have made mistakes which they followed with public apologies. Kidder revisits these people to see if the apologies were just empty words or if the apologies had value. The well-known people who committed wrongs include professional golfer Tiger Woods, several former Citigroup management employees, Pope Benedict, David Letterman, and Eliot Spitzer. Their mistakes included extramarital affairs and mismanagement of others’ money. By most standards, these people do not appear to have suffered dire consequences for their actions. Tiger Woods continues to golf, some of the money mishandlers have retired and have not had to surrender any of their gains, the talk show host continues to host his show, and so on.

These well-known people come from different parts of the U.S., so perhaps relativist theories are at work here, in which morality is different for different people. We could look at ethical subjectivism, cultural relativism, or divine command theory to find a common thread among the wrong-doers. On the other hand, perhaps universalist theories are at work here in which “objective moral truths exist that are true for all humans regardless of their personal beliefs or cultural norms” ( Boss, 2008, p. 8).

About the apologies, Kidder states, “Those who utter them too often feel absolved of any requirement for further repentance, restitution, or reformation. And those who receive them feel obligated to accept them,” and then goes on to give four different scenarios of how to look at an apology. Maybe each wrong-doer felt the action was not immoral: Boss explains that the theory of ethical subjectivism is that “moral right or wrong is relative to the individual” and “moral truth is a matter of feeling or opinion” (p. 9).

One can accept an apology and then forget about the wrong (get over it). But does this guarantee that the wrong will not be repeated? Or one can neither forgive nor forget and continuously punish the wrong-doer – such as the scarlet letter or severing the hand of a thief (vengeance). One can forget the wrong without forgiving the wrong-doer, similar to holding a grudge. Lastly, one can forgive without forgetting, “only after the apologizer has demonstrated a change of heart so radical as to suggest real reform” (Kidder).

The person who has been wronged must decide whether to accept the apology or not and hopefully will be autonomous and self-realized, meaning the person who has been wronged will not depend on the opinions of others. To come to a decision as to whether or not to accept the apology, the person who has been wronged may need to use moral reasoning and think about the experience, its interpretation, and an analysis. Hopefully, the person who has been wronged will not use a resistance defense mechanism such as ignoring or denying the situation.

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